Mayo Clinic Minute: Look Closely at Meat Labels
Meat Labels, Decoded
Is your dinner plate contributing to climate change? Globally, the food industry is responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, many of which emerge from the factory farms responsible for rearing animals. Not to mention that animal agriculture gobbles up land and water, or that a meat-heavy diet appears to increase our risk for heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer.
So we should all go veg, right? Not so fast, says a new report from the World Wildlife Fund UK and the Food Ethics Council. Encouraging people to eat less meat (or none at all) threatens to alienate them from important cultural norms and harms the livelihood of livestock producers, the report notes. The solution? Well, according to the authors of this paper, we should strive to consume higher-quality meat—products that are better for human health, animal welfare, and the environment.
Unfortunately, factory farms don't exactly produce meat that fits those criteria. But they're also the predominant purveyor of the products lining grocery store and deli shelves...and it isn't always easy to tell whether that rib-eye was raised on a pasture or inside a pen. Fortunately, youcanfind superior meat products, by scoping out these five labels:
Organic.Meat labeled "organic" comes from animals who weren't treated with hormones or antibiotics, or fed with genetically modified grains.
Pastured.Pastured animals are often reared on grassland, where they're able to eat a diverse diet of grass, bugs, and other natural vegetation that lends their meat (or dairy) a richer flavor and higher levels of nutrients. Chickens raised on pasture yield eggs with twice the vitamin E and more than 2.5 times the omega-3 fatty acid levels, recent research shows. This label isn't verified by an independent third party, so it's best to buy pastured meats from a local producer who can offer details on how she raises her animals.
Grass-fed.The USDA has defined grass-fed beef as coming from animals that ate 100% grass (which means no corn or soy) and enjoyed continuous access to pasture. But there are some loopholes, so look for products from farmers certified by the American Grassfed Association, which has even stricter standards on "grass-fed" than the USDA.
Animal Welfare Approved.This certification program, from the Animal Welfare Institute, has been described as the highest animal welfare standard of any third-party auditing system. Farmers are subject to annual checks that ensure they adhere to stringent standards, which include allowing animals continuous access to the outdoors, GMO-free food when possible, and strict controls on antibiotic use.
Certified Humane.Another comprehensive animal welfare standard, this certification requires that animals live in cage-free environments and prohibits the use of hormones and antibiotics as growth promoters (although antibiotics are permitted to treat sick animals).
When you're scrutinizing labels, remember that some of them don't mean much at all. Terms like "natural," "antibiotic-free," and "free-range," aren't regulated and are typically more about savvy marketing than serious quality.
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